The Highwayman's Footsteps (10 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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I watched him hurry into the nearby woods. He was not strongly built and his arms drooped as he trotted off, his thin shoulders lower on one side than the other, one arm hanging more loosely. He looked round and raised his hand in a hesitant farewell, but I did not return his gesture. I despised myself as I watched his small frame disappear into the cold darkness of the trees.

I tried to put him from my mind.

As quickly as possible, I made ready to leave, putting my newly-borrowed clothes back where they came from and dressing once more in the ones I had arrived in. I saddled Merlin and fitted his bridle. He let me do it, sensing my expertise.

The boy would have held me back, I told myself. He did not have a way with horses. I could not risk Bess's horse, or Bess, or myself, for sake of a deserter. And perhaps he would escape. Perhaps he would take the food to his mother and sister. Perhaps… But I would not think of him again.

Merlin was strong, but responsive. He had been well handled. You can judge a rider from the behaviour of his horse and Bess, I could tell, was a skilled rider.

I retraced the directions that Bess had given me and before long I was at the place where I had mistaken my way before. This time, in daylight, I avoided the dangers of the marshland, though I could see it not far away, where the wet ground had sucked the snow into its soft mud. I stopped for a few moments, to rest Merlin and, as I did, as I breathed warm mist into the grey air, I looked over to where I had been trapped and where I had been led to safety. By what? By whom? Had it been nothing but a figment of a frightened mind on a dark night?

Perhaps I would never know.

After missing my way only once, and after stopping to buy a cheese and bread from a smallholding, and to drink a cup of warm new milk, I came to our hiding place less than two hours after leaving Bess's home.

The yard was in silence. The door hung open, swinging on the wind.

At that moment, I heard it. A single shot, ringing out over the moors. It came from behind the bothy, to the right. With sudden squawks and frightened flapping, a flock of pigeons flew up from the naked trees, as the sound of the shot echoed over the hillsides.

Chapter Twenty-Two

eaping from the horse, I hurried with him to the byre at the side of the hovel, where I roughly tied him. With both pistols drawn and half-cocked, I ran back to the door, darted inside and flattened myself against the wall behind the opening. Stilling my heavy breathing, I cocked both weapons, and waited.

Footsteps, slow footsteps, soft padding on the ground outside. Still I waited. Silently. The figure came through the doorway. I waited till the person had come right in, and smiled as I stepped forward with a cry of “Halt!” She did not move as I held both pistols to the back of her head, behind the ears, where she had held me at gunpoint only two days before.

“Don't be foolish!” she said. But she did not turn round.

I kept the pistols there, just to show that I could, to show her that
had been foolish to walk through the doorway without care. “You should have ensured there was no one here before you came in,” I said, reprovingly.

There was a slight pause, a silence in which I waited for her to answer. Her answer was not what I expected. In an instant, she flashed her hands upwards, knocking my pistols clear out of my grip, whipping round and grabbing both my wrists before I even had time to exclaim. In another movement she had twisted one of my arms behind my back, forcing it upwards until I almost screamed.

She held me there for several moments, enough to tell me that she could have held me longer. When she released my arm, I scarcely managed to keep upright. I cannot describe the humiliation I felt at being bettered by a girl. I had wrestled with boys of my age and I knew myself to be strong, yet her wiry strength contained a determination and cunning which I could only wonder at.

A freshly-killed hare hung by its feet from her belt, its head wrapped in sacking to soak up the blood and prevent it dripping.

Only as she walked away, turning her back on me as though to prove that she need not fear me, did I see that she still did not walk entirely straight. Her breathing was laboured. She was still in pain – and certainly the more so after her actions – but she was not going to show it.

Well, I would not show it either. “I brought your horse. He is a fine animal.”

“Yes,” was all she said at first. Then, as she walked stiffly to the door, discreetly holding her side, she added, “I thank you for bringing him.” She continued out to the byre where the horse stood. Running her hand over his shoulders and down his nose, she examined him thoroughly, before nodding approvingly, finding nothing amiss. “Did you feed him?”

“I did. Hay and meal.”

She unfastened the buckle under the saddle and reached up to heft it from his back, but I saw her stifle a gasp. She could not bear its weight.

Before she had to ask me for help, I moved to do it for her.

“I can do it!” she snapped.

“I believe you can. But you should not. You might open your wound again, and if you do that I will have to fetch more remedies, perhaps even an apothecary.” She said nothing to that. “How is your fever?” I asked.

“It is passing. I am strong. It would take more than a fever to finish me.” But she shivered in the wind which now flung icy rain at our faces. She led the horse through the door into our shelter and I closed it behind us. Taking him over to a far corner, she removed the bridle, and stroked his neck. The horse stood there, unknowing of any human fears or worries. His raw, warm smell was a comfort to me.

I stoked the fire and soon it crackled and spat, lifting the gloom. Then I made her bed more comfortable and shook out her cloak. “You should rest,” I said, as she watched me. “And dose yourself with physic. And your dressing should be changed.”

“I do not need your help,” she said, beginning to skin the hare expertly with a knife.

I was stung by her rudeness and hostility. More than that, I was afraid that in truth she did
need me. It hurt me to confess this, but I needed her company. More, obviously, than she needed mine.

But I would not show it. I would not stoop so low. I would not stay if I was not wanted.

I stood up, straightening my back so that I was as tall as I could be. Staring at her for a long moment, I spoke. “You are right – you do not need my help. In that case, I will go. But, if you recollect, you were the one who first stopped me with your pistol.” I stooped to pick up my bag, gathering my few belongings into it, and moved towards the door. Opening it, I simply said, “Farewell,” and left the place.

I pulled my hat well down onto my head and walked away without looking back. Feeling her eyes burning into me, I desperately willed her to change her mind, to call me to return. I did not know where I was going and life seemed empty, without another human soul with whom to share it.

I did not know her. I did not even much like her. She made me feel small and foolish. Yet, there was no one other.

The thought of dying on my own, with no one to know or care, was more than I could bear.

Yet, bravely now, I walked away. Bravely? I had no choice. Is that bravery? Is it actions which count as bravery, or how you feel inside?

I did not know. I knew only that what I felt was coldness and misery, and these did not feel in the least like bravery.

Chapter Twenty-Three

earily, I trudged away. Perhaps I went slowly because I hoped she would call me back.

She did not. I continued. Could I put thoughts of her from me? I must.

Very soon, I heard hoofs ahead of me on the stony road. I stopped to listen. Should I hide? My heart began to beat a little faster. It sounded like one horse only. I was right – he was coming round the corner in the distance. Dark, stepping high, trotting proudly.

Ridden by a redcoat.

Although I could not be sure I had anything to fear, the last time I'd seen a mounted redcoat he had died because of me. This one might be searching for me. I did not believe he would know who I was as the soldiers had barely glimpsed me, and I was now wearing a hat and a cloak, which I had not worn when I was at the village. But I could take no chances. I darted into a gap in the hedge and crept around to the other side.

A few moments later, he trotted past. He did not seem to be searching for anyone. He looked ill, slouching in the saddle, his large body drooping. I saw his face as he passed, noticed the redness about the nose, the half-closed eyes set above fat greasy cheeks, the wet lolling lips. His pigtail was whitened, the flour clotted in the wet air. The boy, Henry, came unwillingly into my mind. I stood and watched the man, uneasy for no reason I could name, except that Bess was alone.

But Bess had said she did not need me.

The soldier stopped his horse and slid off. He stumbled, tottered slightly as he walked to the edge of the road and unbuttoned his breeches to pass water. A loud belch reached my ears. He was drunk.

With some difficulty, he clambered back onto his horse and continued along the road, an ugly dead weight upon his mount. I watched him. I was glad that I did, for I saw him stop at the turning to the hovel where Bess was. I watched him direct his horse into the turning and disappear.

Goaded by fear now, I ran back in the same direction, thinking only of what he would do if he found Bess. It was well known how drunken soldiers behaved if they found a girl or woman on her own. Bess was strong, but it would not be enough against the full weight of this soldier.

I reached the turning to see the redcoat sitting on his horse in the middle of the yard. Peering from behind a tree, I could see that the door was shut. Did I see a movement at the unboarded window? I do not know. Perhaps I only thought so as I later tried to piece together the events that followed.

I do know that the redcoat slid off his horse; that he walked slowly towards the door; that he did not take his pistols from his belt. I remember that he stopped at the door, for a moment, a moment during which I neither moved nor breathed, and that he turned aside. I watched him turn and move away. He did not open it. I do not know why he did not open it, why he walked away, but I am saying only what he did, what I remember.

But I heard the door creak as it opened.

And then, as he walked away from the door, as he turned slightly, I remember, in a terrible blur, his chest exploding into a shocking mess. He flew into the air and crumpled instantly to the ground, where he lay like a mangled scarecrow. But scarecrows do not pour bright blood onto the ground.

I ran towards him. Bess stood in the doorway, her hair tumbling around her shoulders, her eyes wide with something that was not quite fear, or shock, but something more unexpected.

Later, I would come to know that it was pure hatred.

“What have you done?” I shouted, looking briefly at the body and then turning away. “What have you done?”

She stood there, her lips curled back in a strange grimace, without making a sound. Smoke still breathed from the ugly mouth of the gun. “Is he dead?” she said at last.

“How might he not be dead? And now there will be a price on your head. You did not have to kill him! He was walking away. You did not have to! Why? Why did you?” Shock increased my anger.

Her voice was almost calm, though if you listened carefully you would have heard its tension, tight as the spring on a new musket. “I did have to. Because of what they did. Because I know what they did.” She walked away, dully, back into the hovel.

I followed her and found her crouched on the floor, her back hunched, breathing hard. I went to her and touched her shoulder then and she did not move. I did not ask her what she meant – there was not time. I knew that we must leave that place. And with all speed. I would discover later what turned her from the calm and reasoning person I had thought she was to the weak and unguarded one I now saw before me. She was crying and she did not even try to hide it.

“We must go, Bess,” I said. “They will search for him and find him and they will find you here too. We must go. Now.” She let me lead her horse out to her. She watched, with blank expression, while I saddled and bridled him. I had to help her mount, partly because her wound still hurt her, partly because I do not think she knew what she was doing. I told her to wait while I collected our possessions. We did not have much. A bag each, our pistols, some scraps of food, our cloaks, hats. The dead hare I left, skinned and disembowelled – a feast for rats and scavengers.

Quickly, I glanced around the bothy, making sure we had left nothing behind, and sparing a brief thought for this place where my life had changed once more. What would happen now? How far might I control my fate? Little enough. Little enough.

Outside again, the icy drizzle falling around us, I swung up behind her and together we trotted away, leaving the soldier's body. His horse stood over it, patiently, without understanding.

Bess did not need to tell me the route – I would not make the same mistake again. She said nothing as we travelled, holding the reins loosely in her hands, trusting her horse, and trusting me too.

Was it her lingering fever that had made her behave thus? She had not needed to kill the soldier. He had done nothing, was walking away. What manner of girl had I become involved with? So unpredictable: one moment laughing, the next scornful; one moment brave and strong, the next unable to control her actions. Could I trust her? Why did I stay with her?

How could I not?

Chapter Twenty-Four

ater that night she told me her story. And then, everything made sense. Or one sort of sense. An uncommon sense. Now I understood her, and trusted her.

It was beside the fire in her cottage that she told me. We had arrived as the afternoon gloom drifted into twilight. By now composed, though nearly silent, she had begun to groom and feed the horse, but when I had offered to do it, she had agreed, to my surprise. She had lit some oil lamps and made up the fire, slowly, still in some pain and stopping frequently to take deep breaths. I said nothing about the boy who had used her home and she noticed nothing amiss. I wanted to forget him, though every time I looked at the fire, the table, the mugs of ale she put out, I thought of him and could not help but wonder if he were still alive.

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
6.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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